Chapter 4: The First Libyan Campaign, 1940–41
IN December, three months after they had crossed the Egyptian frontier, the Italians were still only a few miles past Sidi Barrani with a line of fortified camps that ran south-west across the desert from Maktila, near the coast, to the outposts at Tummar West, Tummar East and Point 90, thence to Nibeiwa and eventually to Sofafi on the southern escarpment. Behind this screen they were busily bringing forward the motor road and the pipeline from Bardia.
The British were also building up their defences and planning a big attack. General Wavell proposed to exploit a gap between Nibeiwa and Sofafi where the defences were not mutually self-supporting, and through which it was possible to strike north towards the sea. The Tummar positions could then be attacked from the rear; it was even possible that an armoured force might be able to cut the coast road and so isolate the Italian force in Sidi Barrani. Success depended upon surprise, and surprise depended upon the attacking force being able to move unobserved across some 70 miles of desert. This was a gamble but the dazzling prize was well worth the risk.
In the plan there was no task for 4 New Zealand Brigade Group. Wavell had hoped to use it during the initial stages of the attack, but the New Zealand Government wanted the troops to go into action as a complete division under their own commander. If he had pressed for it permission would doubtless have been granted, but the request would have gone through too many channels and required so much explanation that his plans for the strictest secrecy could have been jeopardised. He preferred to use 4 Indian Division in the gap, a British brigade for the attack upon Sidi Barrani, and the Australian divisions when he was bustling the Italians out of Cyrenaica.
In view of this decision it is surprising how many New Zealand units or detachments from units took part in the campaign. The signallers who had been with Western Desert Force headquarters since June had handed over their Advanced Corps Signals to the Royal Corps of Signals in November, but the majority of them were still there doing much the same work; in fact Lieutenant-Colonel
Agar was now commanding Corps Signals, Western Desert Force, with No. 1 Company (Lines) commanded by Major A. E. Smith1 and No. 2 Company (Signals Office and Wireless) commanded by Captain Feeney.2 The signals traffic had been increasing with the arrival of stores and the preparations for the counter-attack. Lines had to be adjusted, underground cables installed and miles of field cable laid along the secondary routes. This meant that when the attack opened the signalmen were working three shifts every twenty-four hours in order to control the communication system for the whole force.
Equally essential to the success of the campaign were the companies of railwaymen. The 80 miles of permanent way between El Daba and Mersa Matruh were still the responsibility of 13 Railway Construction Company and 16 Railway Operating Company; at Burg el Arab 17 Railway Operating Company still controlled the yards and railway station. The necessary number of trains was getting through to the forward railheads from which supplies were taken to the desert depots. No exact date could be given to the men, but a few days before the attack opened all station detachments were warned that the smooth running of the service was now so imperative that it had to be maintained, Egyptians or no Egyptians.
The engineers were also needed to deal with the water problems of the desert army. In October 6 Field Company had been brought out from Alexandria to Garawla to construct underground reservoirs, pumping stations and some 18 miles of pipeline through Mersa Matruh to Charing Cross. The campaign opened just as the last work was being done at the different water points. Fifth Field Park Company, which had gone to Burbeita as part of 4 Brigade Group, was now employed taking machinery to Charing Cross, operating the water pumps and supervising pipelines and reservoirs.
Then, in the last week before the attack was launched, the acute shortage of vehicles and drivers brought all the New Zealand transport units into the forward areas. Fourth RMT Company had been there for months but the others had been with 4 Brigade Group at Baggush. On 4–5 December, however, the Petrol and Supply Companies and A Section of the Ammunition Company were sent up to Qasaba and detailed to transfer stores from the railway siding to the depots which were being built up along the desert tracks.
Fourth RMT Company was given a more exciting task: the transportation of 5 Indian Brigade, which as part of 4 Indian Division was to strike through the Bir Enba gap. B Section was recalled from
7 Armoured Division and at Smugglers’ Cove the company, in the obscurity of a sandstorm, overhauled or replaced the vehicles which it had been using for the last five months. In the evening of 5 December, under the command of Major Whyte,3 it joined the Indians at Garawla. A Section (Captain Muller4) went to 1 Royal Fusiliers, B Section (Captain Good5) to 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, and C Section (Captain McAlpine6) to 3/1 Punjab Regiment.
Next morning 4 Indian Division drove off along the Siwa track, ostensibly for another full-scale exercise. In a cold wind and shrouded with thick dust, the widely dispersed vehicles bumped some 50 miles across the desert and halted well to the south of Mersa Matruh. Next day while they waited, every gun and every vehicle camouflaged, orders were issued for the attack.
Along the coast a British force, assisted by the Navy, would demonstrate against Maktila; in the extreme south, part of 7 Armoured Division would cover the Sofafi camps. The rest of the force would strike through the Bir Enba gap, tanks and infantry circling east to take Nibeiwa and the Tummar outposts while another force of tanks and artillery drove north to cut the coast road.
The first stage was another 50-mile move across the open desert on 8 December, a clear day perfect for ground navigation but disturbing for those who feared Italian air attacks. The Royal Air Force, however, kept the skies clear and the long columns halted about 15 miles south-east of the Nibeiwa camp. The I tanks (Matildas) rolled up amidst clouds of dust and night foll with the artillery pounding away along the coast and nervous flares glowing in the distance over the Italian camps.
Before first light on 9 December 4 Indian Division was edging through the gap, hundreds of vehicles in orderly confusion steering through the haze of a rising sandstorm. Before 9 a.m. Nibeiwa camp and 4000 Italians had been captured by 11 Indian Brigade, another force was racing north to cut the coast road and the first steps were being taken to encircle the Tummar encampments.
Fifth Indian Brigade in the trucks of 4 RMT Company was being driven through the now swirling sand to a point west of Tummar West. But at 10 a.m., when the stage was set for the assault, the sandstorm made it impossible to find that objective. There was a pause until 1 p.m., when the barrage opened up and tanks, Bren carriers and then lorry-borne infantry moved off towards Tummar West. The dust and the smoke from burning dumps limited visibility, but before long the armoured vehicles were lumbering through the outer lines. ‘The infantry followed up in lorries to within 150 yards of the walls. The drivers of these lorries were New Zealanders who showed great bravery under fire in bringing their vehicles so close to the enemy position; many of them accompanied the infantry in the assault after debussing.’7
First Royal Fusiliers (A Section 4 RMT Company) began the mopping up and 3/1 Punjab Regiment (C Section) carried on, methodically capturing strongpoints, dugouts and over 3000 Italians.
At the same time 4/6 Rajputana Rifles (B Section 4 RMT Company), who had remained in their vehicles, edged along the north side of the camp to attack Tummar East. As they approached they met a counter-attack of infantry and tanks. The infantry debussed and another bewildering action developed, with clouds of dust, roving tanks, infantry digging in and trucks being hurriedly
withdrawn. As before, some of the 4 RMT drivers attacked with the infantry, Sergeant Thomson8 leading an LMG section of Indians and capturing a machine-gun post. The 3/1 Punjab Regiment came up in support, the Italian tanks were knocked out and by nightfall the counter-attack had faded away. As it was then too late to resume the advance upon Tummar East, patrols were sent out to screen the eastern approaches and the battalions were warned to be ready to move at first light.
To the rear the Advanced Dressing Station with 5 Indian Brigade was receiving hundreds of cases – Indian, British and Italian – casualties from the Tummar camps and casualties sent over from the Sidi Barrani sector. The medical staff, among them 4 RMT Company’s medical officer, Lieutenant Lomas,9 had to work in the open, often under fire, all that night and most of the following day, until the Main Dressing Station was established.
The following day, 10 December, the Italian defences began to crack. The great encampment of Sidi Barrani fell that afternoon and in the central sector 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, transported by B Section 4 RMT Company, took Tummar East. In the rear areas there was a period of comparative quiet when convoys of lorries, including many from 4 RMT Company, were sent back with Italian prisoners. They left late in the afternoon; the wind had then died down and in the clear moonlight they groped through the minefields and reached the prisoner-of-war cages next morning.
All that day, 11 December, mopping-up went on in the forward areas. Whole divisions were surrendering in the coastal sector while others, pursued by the armoured units, retired in disorder towards Sollum. In the Tummar sector an isolated force at Point 90 surrendered after little opposition; there had been concentrations of shellfire, the initial approach by the tanks, and the entry of 3/1 Punjab Regiment in the lorries of C Section 4 RMT Company.
That evening, 11–12 December, preparations were made to attack Sofafi, the only outpost in the original defences still held by the Italians. Fourth Indian Division was hurriedly assembled; the New Zealand drivers who had taken the Indians into Point 90 and those who were returning from the prisoner-of-war cages were given no time to rest. The division was away and had been moving for some hours before an intelligence report was received to say that the Italians were pulling out and that the harrying of their retreating
columns was now a task for the armoured units. There and then a halt was ordered, leaving everyone free to get some sleep.
‘This last manoeuvre was probably the most brilliant performance of the [4 Indian] Division; without a single written order, after three days continuous fighting and moving in a thick dust storm, the units disengaged themselves from the aftermath of a battle, replenished with petrol, food and water, and moved through the dark for 25 miles over previously unreconnoitred country.’10
Fourth Indian Division took no further part in the campaign. Some of the units returned next day to the Baggush area; others followed after salvaging equipment and guarding prisoners of war. Fourth RMT Company remained to evacuate prisoners and transport fuel until 15 December, when it returned to work along the coast road.
By this time the Italians had organised a rearguard and were holding the escarpment that runs inland from the coast at Sollum to Fort Capuzzo and to Halfaya Pass. The immediate problems for the Western Desert Force were, therefore, the evacuation of the 40,000 prisoners of war and the accumulation of men and supplies for the inevitable offensive. Mersa Matruh with its railhead and field depots was now 140 miles from the forward area and sections of the coast road had still to be cleared of mines. The desert tracks, however, were still available, so the question was more one of transport than of highways. Every available transport unit, including those of the New Zealand Division, had to be brought forward to relieve the strain.
The Supply Column, the Petrol Company, and the Ammunition Company (A Section) became links in the endless chain that ran out with supplies and came back loaded with Italian prisoners. The transport vehicles from 4 Brigade came up from the Baggush Box and, on 12–20 December, Major Burrows11 with a convoy of 220 lorries took out petrol and oil and brought back prisoners. Fifth Field Park Company at Baggush and 19 Army Troops Company (1, 2 and 3 Sections), who had gone out from Maadi to Baggush on 14 December, had to release every available driver for the movement of trucks and road machinery to Charing Cross.
The salvaging of enemy vehicles was another way of relieving the shortage of transport. The Italians had abandoned a large
number of 10-ton diesel-engined lorries, so 4 Brigade had to supply mechanics who could operate them. From 18 to 25 December a party of 3 officers and 120 other ranks was at Smugglers’ Cove, and afterwards in the Mersa Matruh– Garawla area, repairing damaged vehicles and instructing Royal Army Service Corps drivers. Any men from 19 Army Troops Company who had diesel-engine experience were sent to Sidi Barrani to salvage Lancia and Fiat lorries; others searched the captured positions for any of the 2000-litre water trucks.
At this stage the railway line and the New Zealand railway companies waiting to extend it westwards from Mersa Matruh were still far to the rear. The railwaymen had received their warning orders on 8 December, the day before the offensive opened. Group Headquarters had moved up from Baggush to Mersa Matruh and 9 Survey Company had begun to survey sidings at Similla and possible routes to the south of Sidi Barrani. By mid-December 13 Railway Construction Company had a detachment working on the escarpment above Garawla; another was with 10 Railway Construction Company at Similla. In the original plan they were to have constructed four miles of track each day, but this was impossible without certain mechanical equipment, of which there was none in the Middle East, and some thousands of tons of railway plate which were reserved for the supply lines feeding the depots of the Nile Valley. Their activities were restricted to preparatory work which would obviate any delays in plate-laying when the material did arrive. But even then the engineers had their problems. The Arab labourers were difficult to handle and the weather, until the New Year, brought rain, cold winds and swirling sandstorms.
In the meantime the British had prepared to attack the rearguard at Halfaya Pass, but the Italians had wilted once again, withdrawing from their strongpoints and halting about 20 miles away at Bardia, a small town with white-walled houses set on the cliffs above a miniature harbour. Mussolini had called it a bastion of Fascism, but over 40,000 Italian soldiers were now trapped behind its minefields and its barbed-wire perimeter. Unable at this stage to risk a dramatic but possibly costly victory, Wavell was content to maintain the siege and patiently prepare for a full-scale assault. So with 7 Armoured Division screening the western flank and probing along the highway towards Tobruk, 16 British Brigade was assembled to the south-east and 6 Australian Division brought up to attack Bardia from the south-west.
In these preparations the New Zealand transport units had many different roles to play. Fourth RMT Company on 17 December transported 16 Australian Brigade from Sidi Haneish to an assembly
point near Sidi Barrani, but its regular work was the conveyance of supplies from the port of Sollum to the dumps along the escarpment. As speed of delivery was essential the company worked on a twenty-four-hour schedule, with half the trucks operating during the day and the other half at night.
The essential item for transport at this stage of the advance was the water brought up by sea from Mersa Matruh. Two water barges, each operated by crews of four from 19 Army Troops Company, came up to Sollum on the night of 22–23 December. The men then began a succession of difficult days. Air raids had to be endured, 40-gallon water drums had to be filled for transportation by 4 RMT Company and, at night, the barges had to be taken back along the coast to meet naval craft bringing more water. At all costs they had to be back before dawn, when the guns in Bardia began to shell the escarpment above the waterfront.
On the morning of 24 December there was no air raid, but the hours dragged on and the atmosphere had that intensity which suggests the approach of violent action. The barge crews were filling the water drums and a mixed group of British, Australian, Cypriot and New Zealand troops was unloading two other barges which had come in with oranges and tinned beer for Christmas Day, when suddenly about midday Italian aircraft came over to bomb with unusual and devastating accuracy.
The bomb which hit one of the supply barges and those which burst on the wharf caused the most serious loss yet experienced by the Division. Six men from 4 RMT Company and one from 19 Army Troops Company were killed and six from 4 RMT Company wounded.12
There was, however, no pause in the work. The great problem of the moment was the shortage of transport for the creation of forward supply depots and the conveyance of troops to attack Bardia. Fourth RMT Company worked all through Christmas Day13 and all through that night on the run from Sollum to the desert depots. After that it was recalled to the main stream of traffic between Sollum and Sidi Haneish, where the work was long and arduous, drivers loading and off-loading, engines being replaced and aged vehicles being coaxed to remain on the road.
This meant that the conveyance of the Australian infantry to the outskirts of Bardia was a task for the other transport units. In
two journeys – on 26–28 and 29–31 December – the Petrol Company and the Supply Column brought 17 Australian Brigade from Sidi Haneish to an assembly point beyond Sollum. On 30 December 4 Brigade Group sent its transport under the command of Major Burrows to convey 19 Australian Brigade from Burg el Arab to the outskirts of Bardia, a 350-mile journey with two nights on the road and two days travelling to the debussing point beyond Fort Capuzzo. Major-General I. G. Mackay, at whose urgent request the brigade had been brought forward, reported to General Freyberg that it was ‘a wonderful piece of work by your men for they moved us in two days, instead of the three ordained, right from Burg el Arab to Capuzzo. Your drivers were untiring and were determined to get my men here in spite of the heavy traffic on indifferently surfaced roads.’ The commander of the Western Desert Force, Lieutenant-General O’Connor, was more comprehensive in his praise. He thanked General Freyberg for the ‘excellent work’ of his 4 RMT Company and the first- and second-line transport; he did not know what he ‘should have done without them.’
In other words, the pieces upon the chessboard were now so placed that General O’Connor could make a full-scale attack upon Bardia. On 3 January British tanks and Australian infantry broke through the outer defences and by 5 January had the town and 45,000 prisoners. At the same time 7 Armoured Division was rattling up the coast road encircling the port of Tobruk and forcing the Italians to abandon the airfields at Gazala, Tmimi and Bomba.
The New Zealand units took no part in these swift thrusts, but they were called forward when 13 Corps14 assembled its forces for the assault upon Tobruk. The first to arrive were the engineers of 5 Field Park Company, who entered Bardia on 6 January, the day after its capture. Only a week before, after four months in the Baggush area, they had been grouped with three British field companies to form Corps Troops, Royal Engineers. Since then they had been moving up to the forward area, practically following the sound of the guns.
In Bardia, and elsewhere, the British field companies were given the larger tasks such as road maintenance and dock work; 5 Field Park Company was given a variety of duties calling for more specialised skill. It had to re-establish the water system, salvage diesel-engined lorries and prepare tank trailers for the transportation of water to the forces that were now collecting 75 miles away outside Tobruk.
That town was twice the size of Bardia, with an adequate water supply, strong ground defences and the best harbour between
Alexandria and Benghazi. Within it were 25,000 Italian soldiers, and patrolling outside was a small force from 7 Armoured Division which had to be reinforced without delay. In readiness for such an emergency 4 RMT Company had been withdrawn from the Sollum area and warned to prepare for troop-carrying duties. On 6 January the sections were out in the desert taking supplies to the field depots when a Lysander flew over and dropped orders to report to Headquarters 6 Australian Division in Bardia. That evening the company assembled in the town, 19 Australian Brigade embussed and a difficult journey commenced. There was no moon and several vehicles ran off the tarsealed road, but by midday on 7 January the Australians were debussing a few miles east of Tobruk. The operation was repeated on two successive nights until the brigade was in its pre-arranged position east of Tobruk.
This was not the prelude to any headlong attack. The Italians in Tobruk were trapped and 7 Armoured Division was now far beyond the port, driving the rearguards along the coast road to Derna or across the desert to Mechili. But Tobruk with its minefields and coastal defences could not be assaulted without careful reconnaissance and adequate resources. There still had to be a period of aggressive patrolling and of uninterrupted activity along the lines of communication.
In this phase the more forward of the New Zealand units were those in and about Sollum. Fourth RMT Company after its dash to the outskirts of Tobruk with the Australian infantry brigade was now moving supplies from the wharf to the depots along the coast road. The engineers from 19 Army Troops Company still operated their two barges, not for the conveyance of water – for the wells at Fort Capuzzo were now in working order – but as lighters to carry supplies from the ships in the bay to the jetty below the escarpment. The barges had become important links in the supply line, important enough by mid-January for the naval authorities to protest to Headquarters 13 Corps when orders were received for the crews to return to Maadi Camp with the rest of the company. As a result General Freyberg, in spite of his desire to collect all his scattered units, agreed that the men should remain with the barges until new crews could be obtained.
The other New Zealanders at Sollum were volunteers with seafaring or waterfront experience who had been sent up from the railway companies. Those who worked on the miniature waterfront checking cargoes and arranging for the movement of stores to the field depots were attached to 199 Railway Operating Company, Royal Engineers. The tug crews were seconded to the Navy for duty and controlled by the Naval Officer in Command, Sollum. The port,
having only one jetty, was used as an open roadstead, the ships anchoring in the bay and cargoes being ferried ashore in Jaffa lighters, which carried about ten tons each and resembled double-ended surf boats. The tugs had to tow these lighters, and, as there were only the four tugs and sometimes as many as twenty vessels in the bay, the crews worked very long hours. Italian prisoners and hospital cases were taken out and stores brought back.
The other units were farther back along the highway to Cairo. Nineteenth Army Troops Company had some men lifting minefields and salvaging equipment about Sidi Barrani and others at Mersa Matruh putting the water system into working order. Beyond them again, with Qasaba as their base, were the Petrol Company, the Supply Column and A Section of the Ammunition Company. Their trucks were in the endless stream of vehicles now taking supplies from the railhead at Mersa Matruh to the field depots and returning with Italian prisoners and salvaged equipment. This work, apart from some convoys to Siwa oasis and the transportation of a Polish battalion from Mersa Matruh to Sidi Barrani, was to occupy them until February, when they were recalled to Helwan Camp to prepare for the campaign in Greece.
The last group of New Zealanders were 4 Brigade and the attached units who were still working and training in the Baggush Box. They had been given a negative, colourless role in the campaign; in fact they were standing in the wings, still waiting for their cue. And now, late in December, after a bleak Christmas, orders were received to move back to Helwan Camp. To explain why they had not been given a more active part to play, General Wavell on 27 December wrote a note for the New Zealand Division. It was marked confidential and may not have been for the rank and file, but as an explanation and an apology it is useful to historians:
Note for the New Zealand Division from General Wavell
27 December 1940
I feel that I owe an explanation to the New Zealand Division, and especially to the 4th Infantry Brigade, regarding the recent operations in the Western Desert. I know that they are disappointed at not having taken part in the advance on Sidi Barrani or beyond, and perhaps feel hurt that they have been used for all the hard work of making defences and then have not been detailed to take part in the attack when attack became possible.
I therefore give you the reasons which influenced the decision not to use them in the advance. It was my original intention to do so. But the New Zealand Government, quite naturally and quite rightly, has always wished
that the New Zealand Division should be employed in active operations only as a complete division under its own Commander. I am sure that if I had been able to explain the situation to the New Zealand Government, they would have granted permission for the 4th Infantry Brigade to be used, as they have granted permission for the special use of a part of the forces they have supplied. At the time when the decision had to be taken, however, it was still several weeks before the operations were to take place, the strictest possible secrecy was being maintained, and the number of those who knew that an operation was to take place at all was extremely limited. To consult the New Zealand Government would necessarily have involved the communication of some details of the plans to several people and possibly some discussion of them. It would have been necessary to place the Brigade under the command of the Commander of the 4th Indian Division. I felt that I could not do all this without some detailed explanation to the New Zealand Government which might have jeopardised secrecy. I therefore decided, somewhat reluctantly, not to use the New Zealand Brigade, and to use instead the 16th Infantry Brigade which I could do without reference to anyone.
As regards the use of the Australian Division for the second stage of the operations, I required a whole division, and if I had sent forward the New Zealand Brigade it would have been necessary to form a composite division of Australian and New Zealand troops, which I had been given to understand was contrary to the wishes of the New Zealand Government. It would have either broken up the New Zealand Division or would have involved a further relief at a later stage with loss of time and waste of transport. It had always been my intention that the Australian Corps should eventually take over the Western Desert, and that the New Zealand Division when complete should become the General Headquarters Reserve. This explains why I was unable to send forward the New Zealand Brigade in the second stage of the operations.
As you know, however, the assistance that has been given by the New Zealand Division to the operations in the Western Desert has been invaluable, and the recent success could not have been gained without it. The New Zealand Division has supplied its Signals, its transport, its Engineers, Railway and other personnel who have made up our shortage in these very necessary services. I should like to refer also to the magnificent work done by the Long Range Patrols who relieved me of any anxiety about the Southern Libyan Desert, from which the Italians might have threatened Upper Egypt or the Sudan.
I take this opportunity of thanking the New Zealand Division for all the assistance they have so willingly provided during the very difficult period when the defence of Egypt was dangerously weak, and I very much regret that it was not possible for them to take an even greater share in the advance from Matruh. Their turn will come before long, and I have every confidence that their leadership, training, and spirit will win them great distinction in any operation in which they take part.
A. P. Wavell
For units other than 4 Brigade, the period between the capture of Bardia and the assault upon Tobruk, 5–21 January, was one of intense activity. In the extreme west the two main groups of the
Italian Army, still harried by the forward elements of 7 Armoured Division, had withdrawn still farther. The more northerly group stopped at Derna, a coastal town on the eastern edge of a fertile area dotted with the neat houses of Italian colonists. From here the main highway and a small-gauge railway turned westwards across Cyrenaica and through the Vale of Barce to Benghazi. The other group was more to the south at Mechili, where there was a Beau Geste fortress and the desert crossroads from which routes ran north across the hills to the valley or due west by a desert track to Benghazi.
For some days the only threats to Italian security were the patrols from the armoured division. The greater part of 13 Corps was still outside Tobruk in readiness for the attack, which was first held up by the slow arrival of supplies and then postponed by a succession of sandstorms. It was not until 21 January that 6 Australian Division made the assault which broke through the outer perimeter and led to the formal surrender of the town the following afternoon.
The first New Zealanders into the captured town were engineers. On 22 January Lieutenant Pollock,15 who commanded 10 Light Aid Detachment, now attached to 5 Field Park Company, entered behind the Australian infantry to establish an Advanced Ordnance Workshop. The following day a detachment from 5 Field Park Company was working beyond Tobruk with the British engineers who were lifting mines from the main highway. The rest of the company entered the town with 10 Light Aid Detachment on 25 January. The engineers set about lifting mines, salvaging Italian vehicles and repairing the town’s water system; the LAD men salvaged trucks and then went forward two days later to Tmimi, close by the seaplane base at Bomba.
Using the harbour and water supply of Tobruk, 13 Corps could now direct its strength towards Derna, another 100 miles along the highway that was still unfolding itself like an interminable liquorice strap. Reinforcements were being rushed forward to the units which were in touch with the Italian rearguard. In fact, 4 RMT Company had been withdrawn from the Sollum area and kept standing by for orders, which came immediately after the capture of Tobruk and sent it to carry first 19 Australian Brigade and then 17 Australian Brigade to the outskirts of Derna. On the company’s return it joined Rear Headquarters and F Section (Workshops), who had in the meantime been moving from Smugglers’ Cove to Fort Capuzzo, and finally to the fringe of the airfield at Tobruk. With the harbour
cleared for shipping, the company was employed transferring stores from the waterfront to the field depots.
The main thrust against the Italian rearguards was not, however, at Derna but in the south near Mechili, where 7 Armoured Division had crossed the rolling stretches of semi-desert, fought a sharp engagement with the Italian armoured units and was now preparing to overwhelm the whole force. The Italians avoided this by withdrawing through the hills to the main highway west of Derna.
Plans were then made for a mobile force to strike westwards along the desert track from near Mechili. As this could not be attempted without supply depots and armoured reinforcements, pressure was maintained in the Derna sector in order to distract attention while the mobile force assembled to the south.
In this dash across the desert, the most dramatic movement in the whole campaign, the only New Zealanders to take any active part were the signalmen with Advanced Headquarters 13 Corps, who had been moving across North Africa much more sedately than the forward units. After the collapse of the Italian defences at Sidi Barrani, they had shifted to Halfaya Pass. On New Year’s Day some of the long-expected Royal Signals detachment had arrived from Britain, but there had been no attempt to send the New Zealanders back to Egypt. After Bardia fell they went with Corps Headquarters to Gambut, and now, after the fall of Tobruk, they were at Bomba with Lieutenant-Colonel Agar as the senior New Zealand officer. From here, during the pause before the drive across the desert to Benghazi, the first New Zealand signalmen were released. Captain Feeney and 66 other ranks were withdrawn to Tobruk and, as escort for 1500 Italians, returned by ship to Alexandria. They were back in Helwan Camp by 4 February. At Corps Headquarters the Royal Signals took over all office duties; the only New Zealanders left were Colonel Agar, Major A. E. Smith and four wireless detachments, with a detachment from the maintenance section. They remained with Headquarters 13 Corps for another two weeks, long enough for them to see the abrupt conclusion to the campaign.
The final stage began with the Italians on 30 January pulling back from Derna. Sixth Australian Division immediately gave chase, bustling the enemy rearguard along the highway which curves its way through northern Cyrenaica. In the south 7 Armoured Division and the units assembled at Mechili were ordered to cross the desert to Msus, and from there to reach the highway south of Benghazi. By striking along the chord of the circle this highly mobile force would make possible the capture of Benghazi and prevent the
escape of the Italian Tenth Army as it fell back before the Australians. The margin of error was rather fine: the strength of 7 Armoured Division had been whittled down to that of one brigade; the supply depots along the desert route were only partially stocked. The force, however, was carrying two days’ supply of food, petrol and ammunition so the chances of success and the magnitude of the prize justified the risk.
The columns moved off on 4 February, bumping over the desert all that day and on throughout the moonlit night to reach Msus next morning. One force then turned north-west towards Soluch; the other pressed on as before, cutting the highway about 60 miles south of Benghazi and collecting, that same evening, over 5000 prisoners.
On 6 February the issue was decided. The Australians who had been driving the Italians through the Vale of Barce entered Benghazi. South of the town at Beda Fomm the Italians attempted to break through the road block. The day ended with their tanks out of action and a confused column of vehicles jamming the Benghazi road for nearly 20 miles. Next day, after another attempt to extricate his force, General Bergonzoli surrendered. The way was then clear for a British group to drive through south-west Cyrenaica to El Agheila, the gateway to Tripolitania.
Advanced Headquarters 13 Corps, having moved up through Msus behind 7 Armoured Division, went north to Benghazi, where the New Zealand signalmen were immediately given the task of repairing and operating the local telephone exchange.
No other New Zealand unit had taken part in this last drive across Cyrenaica. C Section 4 RMT Company, led by Captain Broberg,16 had been the nearest to it. It had spent several days running petrol from Bomba to 18 Field Supply Depot, the most advanced dump along the track to Msus. The rest of the company had entered Derna in the wake of the Australians and found it to be a small town with trim white villas and tree-lined avenues, nestling under a steep escarpment and fringing a small harbour. There were hot baths and Italian wines, furnished flats and the many amenities of civilised life that the men had not enjoyed since they left New Zealand. From this elysium the drivers now had to operate a regular service to Benghazi.
The only other New Zealand unit to enjoy these conditions were the engineers of 5 Field Park Company, who had come up close on the heels of the forward troops, repairing roads, lifting mines and re-establishing water supplies. They had erected a water tank at
Tmimi, operated the pumping station at Martuba, and had then gone on to Derna to repair the power-house and restore the municipal electricity service.
This pleasant interlude did not last very long. The Italians who had built excellent highways before the war were now equally efficient with their demolitions, for over 100 miles away on the road to Barce they had destroyed the bridge across a deep, wide gully. The company was ordered to construct another one, so an advance party moved out on 7 February to begin the operation. The rest of the unit, following three days later, established a base in the vaults of the great monument on Gebel Akhdar, the mountainous region overlooking the red fields and white homesteads in the Vale of Barce. Having little equipment, they improvised as best they could. Tubular steel scaffolding was brought up from the wrecked airfield at Tobruk and, despite air raids, the bridge was constructed within four days.
There were very good reasons for this haste to repair the main highway. The naval authorities at Benghazi were finding it difficult to clear the harbour and very inconvenient to be operating so close to the Italian airfields in Tripoli. Supplies and reinforcements for the units in western Cyrenaica had therefore to be landed at Tobruk and hurried through by motor transport.
This harbour, which had been cleared for shipping immediately after its capture on 22 January, now received a greater tonnage of shipping than did Sollum. Allied soldiers, Arab and Palestinian labourers, were busy handling the shipping in the harbour and the cargoes along the waterfront. With them were some New Zealanders, men from the railway operating companies, who had been brought up by sea from Alexandria.
Some ships ran straight through from Alexandria to Tobruk but others, more particularly Egyptian ships, were not taken out of Egyptian waters. They were unloaded at Sollum by the New Zealanders who had been left there to operate the tugs and the two water barges. Italian prisoners were taken out to the ships, reinforcements disembarked and were ferried to naval vessels waiting to rush them into Tobruk, and supplies were taken back to the waterfront. To disrupt this routine the enemy dropped acoustic mines into Sollum harbour. All that could be done was to mark their approximate positions, call up minesweepers from Alexandria and leave the crews to carry on as before, with the hope that the cards would be stacked in their favour.
On the morning of 3 February, however, No. 2 water barge, manned by men from 19 Army Troops Company, exploded a mine and disintegrated with the loss of all the crew and many Italian
prisoners. Then, in the evening, an engineer from 16 Railway Operating Company was washed off the deck of one of the tugs and drowned in a choppy sea.
No. 1 barge had been more fortunate. The previous night, with one of the tugs in tow, it had set out for Tobruk in company with HMS Ladybird and five of the Jaffa barges. They had a rough trip, the tug twice broke away and they were late in arriving outside Tobruk, so late in fact that they nearly missed their chance of following the Ladybird through the minefields. A third tug and still more men came up from Sollum within the next week. Those actually working on the water barge and tugs were part of ‘Y’ Docks Operating Company and under naval control, but later they joined the New Zealanders of the shore staff as part of 1018 Docks Operating Company.
For these New Zealanders this was the beginning of an exacting but exciting period of the war. The work was no different from that at Sollum: lighters had to be towed and unloaded, stores had to be sent to the different depots. But the air raids were more severe because Tobruk, as the port through which 13 Corps was supplied, was the natural target for enemy aircraft. And the Luftwaffe was now supporting the less aggressive Regia Aeronautica. In a very short time their bombs, acoustic mines and low-level strafing had converted the busy harbour into a nautical graveyard that was famous for its sunken ships and its battered waterfront.
In other parts of Cyrenaica the enemy was less aggressive, but it is now possible to be wise and to say that the position of 13 Corps was not as sound as it looked. Its units were reduced in strength and working with worn-out transport. And, throughout February, 6 Australian Division and the different New Zealand units were being withdrawn to join the expeditionary force that was about to sail for Greece. The way was thus being cleared, quite unsuspectingly, for the counter-attack which Rommel was to launch on 31 March 1941.